Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Remembering the Silhouette of Albert Through the Snowflakes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 9:03 am on Sunday, March 5, 2023

by Robert M. Katzman ©  March 5, 2023

Many years ago, I hired this older disabled man, Albert, to work in my Morton Grove, Ill old magazine store. He had the gentle manner and a kind of childish delight in ordinary things. My customers seemed to enjoy talking with him, which he would readily do, sometimes for too long, forgetting the other work he was supposed to do. He never matured emotionally beyond pre-adolescent, but he had a precise way of doing things. Very focused and silent when engaged.

One morning, he brought a photo of himself standing in his World War One (1917-1918) uniform while holding a rifle by the barrel, the wooden stock in the mud below, when he went to France. He didn’t have anything to say about it, just wanted me to see it. He was 18 in the photo, and I was looking at it in 1995, 77 years later. I was 45.

I think something ghastly happened to Albert in the first World War for him to come out of it the way I knew him.

No branch of the US Army  would have enlisted him if he was at the level of maturity he presented to me.

I never asked him. It wasn’t something for me to know. However, the first employee I ever had when opening my wooden newsstand at 15 was 69 years old, had one arm and one leg. He was the original owner — in 1912 — of the Hyde Park corner I was on in 1965. Born in 1896, he tried to jump a freight train in the rain when he was 16, slipped and the train rain over him. Big cities at the time provided newsstands mostly to disabled veterans, however this was six years before America’s 1916 involvement in World War One (1914-1918).

Bill Reynolds worked Monday through Friday for me for three years, allowing me to finish high school. I worked every weekend. Without him, I never would have been able to obtain and keep my Newsvendor’s Permit from the City of Chicago which gave me the rights the corner I occupied. During those three years, which became “The Real World Facts of Life” school for me, I received a crash course in how to prevent Chicago newspaper truck drivers from stealing from me — a war with no end — how to count newspapers in a bundle by 3’s to speed up my checking on that theft, how to fold a newspaper with one hand to slip under the arm of a customer while making change with the other hand, how to keep warm in winter by stuffing newspapers in my boots, to stand on a piece of wood in frigid weather because that was warmer than concrete, how to properly wear a scarf to prevent heat from leaving my body in sub-zero weather, the absolute necessity of a warm hat.

How to speak to women properly, how to wind and waterproof the wooden stand from the interior, how to operate, fill and maintain a kerosene stove so as to not poison myself, um…too much, how to do the same with a kerosene lantern, which included how to clean the glass flame shield regularly, (later) how to talk to girls my own age, how to touch them (gently) if it came to that, and remembering to always help them with their coats (he said ‘wrap’), open doors for them, pull out and then push their chairs in from behind for them, always walk on the curbside when with a girl so that if it was raining and a car raced by splashing a puddle, I’d get wet and not the girl.

I later discovered that any girl I dated was surprised by this mostly forgotten level of courtesy. But I never knew any other way. I had the manners of a boy from pre-World-War One.

He was the Encyclopedia of Bill.

My mentor for three years, while I was attending the University of Chicago Lab School where the lessons were far more limited and obscure to me. Three years later, I too began losing body parts when I lost my left jaw to cancer, which eventually led to partial facial paralysis, causing me to have learn how to speak distinctly at 18. The problem persists today, especially exasperating because I can’t clearly pronounce my own last name — Katzman —  understandably to almost everyone and must spell it every time for over fifty years.

I learned quite a bit about how people treated Bill as I watched him interact with old friends from his era, and that he could sew with one hand and even dance with his artificial leg. He too, like my father, taught me how to talk to police, develop trust with them even though I was a teenager, that paramount in all cases between thieves I’d meet and the cops was keeping my word if I gave it and never repeat a confidence.

Before his eventual heart attack, at 18 I was Bill’s best man when he finally got married at 71 in a raucous wedding with great food and a lot of singing and whiskey in 1968. Though Bill was childless, by then I was as close to being his own son as he would ever have.

When I met Albert thirty years later, my attitude toward disabled people was not what they COULDN’T do, but what they COULD do, and I hired them for jobs like that. After all, what the hell was I by then? Perfect in every way? Not hardly.

Treating someone any other was inconceivable to me, as if only brown-eyed people could work for me because blue eyes wouldn’t fit it.

The other thing about my relationship with Albert was that I’d had about 20+ surgeries by then, including five transplants, so I knew I was one bad surgery from being unemployed myself. When a decade later after Albert’s death, and I had my two brain surgeries which permanently damaged two parts of my brain affecting my ability to consistently recognize people, but also and much worse, no longer be able to immediately remember proper nouns: names for everything including my friends, relatives, movies, books and all things with a name.

People couldn’t see my disability like anyone could see Bill’s missing limbs, but I soon discovered how it felt to not have the same abilities as everyone else nearly 60 years after meeting Bill.

My own damage is permanent, but I was ready to deal with it when I had to, because Bill Reynolds taught me how independent and valuable a disabled person could be, and also, how essential he was to me. I wish many people could read this story and learn how to be kind and respectful to those whom the world had tossed around and damaged, through no fault of their own.

So, who am I?

I’m essential.


One day I was carefully removing and trimming by cutting 1920’s National Geographic 1920 extinct auto advertisements to frame. Albert  watched me cutting, transfixed.

Then he said to me,

“Bob you are an excellent scissorer!”

I looked at him in surprise. Never heard that word before or since.

One day there was a massive blizzard and, rationally, I decided not to drive the 20 dangerous miles from my Deerfield, Ill. home to open the store. Then, suddenly, I realized Albert would likely be waiting outside of the door for me to arrive and open the store like he did every single day. I didn’t want to leave my house because it was really coming down, big white flakes. But there was no choice. Albert was in his 70’s and in his world, there was no question he had to be there. He didn’t have a telephone.

It took an hour for me to get there, but slowly rolling down Dempster St toward the store I could see the dim outline of Albert’s dark old army coat through the snow. He waved to me, I pulled up next to him, and he climbed in. I thanked him for showing up on such a day, then took him to a nearby restaurant for two large takeout cups of hot chocolate. He sat in the car with me, not speaking, warming his chilled bones, the windshield fogging up from the steam, and we just sat.

After a while I drove him to his home where he lived with a family whom I guess adopted him. I told him I’d see him tomorrow and I did. He worked for another year, became ill, and then he died. Whenever I happen to cut some paper or anything with a scissors, that word from Albert briefly pops up for me: “Scissorer.”

He left that for me, and he was right, I am, too.

This is a small memory about a gentle and worthy man I once knew and was graced to work with, without his own family to remember him.

Like he was here and gone without a trace.

So now, I offer this trace about a gentle man trapped within himself, like a Peter Pan from a misty century before, who never grew up.

Rest in peace, Albert.

I remember you.


Comment by Kumari de Silva

March 5, 2023 @ 1:15 pm

This is lovely. I’m so glad you went and checked on him, poor guy would have froze to death waiting for you. No phone!

yeah. . . something happened to him and we’ll never know what. Thank you for memorializing him

Comment by charlie newman

March 5, 2023 @ 3:50 pm

Exceptional, Bob. He reminds me of a guy I used to bump into working in NYC in the mid-60s.

Comment by Brad Dechter

March 6, 2023 @ 7:09 am

Good story Bob! I’m glad you didn’t edit it so that Albert ended up on the cutting room floor.
You’re a mensch for hiring someone with a disability like his!?

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